A Real Courier

Not long after I started this job I was joined on a park bench by a veteran courier called Sid. He’d been on the road 16 years and I’d been on the road a matter of weeks, so you can imagine how the conversation went. He smiled indulgently at my silly questions, and told me a few snippets of how it had been in the good old days, when there was actually enough work to make a decent living, and his girlfriend used to call up his controllers at 7pm and beg them to let him come home. He wished me luck for the next few months.

“You’re not a real courier till you’ve done your first winter – that’s what they say.”

I took this to heart perhaps more than I should have. I hadn’t started couriering with a clear goal in mind (six weeks? six months?), but now all that mattered was making it through November, December, January and February. I work best when I have something to prove, even if only to myself.

I was later told that you’re not a Real Courier until you’ve done two winters, just in case one wasn’t hard enough or something. I don’t think anyone else takes this as seriously as I do. But I’ve now done three winters, and two of them were particularly difficult ones, so I think I finally qualify.

But what is a Real Courier?

If you judge it by the ‘two winters’ rule of thumb, then clearly a Real Courier is someone who’s proved themselves by sticking with the job for a certain length of time and through a certain amount of hardship, who’s grown out of all their silly rookie mistakes, and who has enough experience both to command the respect of other couriers and to have something to talk to them about over post-work beers.

I’ve been around for a while now, so people usually take me seriously – but of course I’ll still defer to gnarled old veterans like Overdrive and Gertie and Von. (Edit: and Zero, who is older and gnarlier than the lot of them.) That’s just the way it is. And quite right too. A courier who’s survived two decades deserves a lot more respect than someone who’s survived a mere two winters.

I’ve just started reading Rebecca Reilly‘s Nerves of Steel.

It’s a fairly exhaustive study of 1990s bike messenger culture in the US and, although it’s by no means great literature, it is great history and I’m finding every page fascinating. Expect to hear a lot more about it over the next few weeks.

One thing that’s struck me so far is Reilly’s anthropological dissection of courier hierarchies in many of the cities she worked in.

Camaraderie in the messenger community is hard won. A rookie is almost never immediately absorbed into the larger community. Most often, rookies operate on their own until an older messenger takes them under a wing mentor them. Rookies expecting instant camaraderie are shunned harshly. Rookies who are more humble in their approach are more readily accepted. Generally there is a one- to three-year probationary period. (p. 36; her errors)

I’m not sure I like this, or entirely agree with it. It’s not all that different from my experience, but I’d suggest that the lengthy period before a ‘rookie’ becomes part of scene proper has as much to do with the fact that we’re a geographically dispersed workforce who often only see each other riding furiously in the opposite direction – it takes a lot longer to make friends with everyone than it would if we all worked in the same office every day. And there isn’t as much elitism as she implies – at least not in London. Lots of the couriers who first struck me as aloof or unfriendly turned out to be just a bit shy or socially awkward.

Reilly implies a much more rigid system, with clearly defined roles and categories.

Professional messengers are those who have lived through their first crisis of confidence and made the conscious decision to remain messengers. … Because professional messengers are still somewhat energetic at three to eight years on the road, they tend to make waves, and draw the criticism of veterans. (p. 36)

Veterans are messengers with ten or more years on the street. They are the tribal elders who pass on the knowledge of being a messenger, complete with tricks and free food spots. They not only pass on information, but they also decide when rookies have come of age. Veterans are picky about who they hang out with and sometimes won’t acknowledge new messengers until they have been on the road for more than five years. (p. 36)

I’m not going to bother refuting any of that, because I think we all know enough examples to the contrary.

But what strikes me about this is that Reilly, along with the rest of us, espouses a cultural, rather than a functional idea of courierdom. That’s to say, what is “a courier” is defined by authorities within the community (in fact, the community itself is probably defined by those same authorities), rather than by the simple fact of being paid money to deliver items by bicycle.

The problem is – who decides who is and isn’t a courier? Put like that it sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? Still, I’ve agonized in the past (here and here) over whether I’ll ever actually qualify. I certainly don’t fit any of the popular stereotypes and, in my more paranoid moments, I worry that my accent will lead people to believe that I’m just a trustafarian playing at being a cycle courier. I’m not, but I do have other career options. I’m doing this through choice, rather than because it’s the only job that’ll take me.

None of this should matter, of course. I’m out ten hours a day, all year round, in all weathers. I deliver packages. I ride a bike. So I’m a cycle courier.

And so’s the old guy in the tracksuit on the Argos hybrid.

And so’s the fakengeralike in the designer jeans.

And so’s the new girl who’s only been on the road two days and might not last the week. Yes, even her.

I had a conversation about the State Of The Industry with 24Tee recently, in which she pointed out that, of course, if you think about it, the majority of people who work as couriers do so on a temporary and short-term basis, either because they can’t handle the pain and suffering and low wages, or because something better comes along.

It’s true. This is a job with a very high turnover. I’ve been with my company less than three years and already I’m the most senior on the fleet (well, in terms of having worked here the longest, I hasten to add!). Dozens have come and gone since I started. Some moved on to other companies, but most are long gone, having decided after the first day, or month, or winter, that couriering wasn’t for them. Of all the people who become cycle couriers, the majority don’t last longer than a couple of months.

Everyone (myself included) likes to criticize Travis Culley, who wrote his memoir of the Chicago courier circuit after only nine months on the road. Several old-timers have questioned his authority to comment on a scene he barely knew, and accused him of naivety and inexperience.

People say I haven’t paid my dues as a messenger, but I don’t pretend to be an authority on the subject. Some of them want to believe it’s noble to remain a messenger. They can criticize me, but to me messengering is a transient job for transient minds.

I still dislike Culley’s book – and his attitude – but I no longer entirely disagree with his classification of couriering as a “transient” job. For many people it is. And of course, since they’ll only define themselves as cycle couriers for a few months, before they go back to being students, or web developers, or journalists, or mechanics, or whatever, no one’s ever going to look to them for an authoritative comment on the subject, the way they do the self-appointed ‘career couriers’, and those who’ve been on the road long enough that everyone knows their name and looks up to them. True, someone who only spent four months on the road won’t be able to describe the courier industry in the same breadth and depth as someone who’s worked in several cities over more than a decade. But, since these short-timers make up such a huge majority of cycle couriers, surely their experience, however limited, is no less valid.

The “transient minds” are still a huge part of the courier story. Hundreds of the people who are on the road this week won’t be here next year. But they’re here now. And they’re cycle couriers. Real ones.

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8 Responses to “A Real Courier”

  1. zero Says:

    Who are these young pups that you’re calling ‘gnarled old veterans’? If you look up ‘gnarled old veterans’ in the book you’ll see a picture of yours truly. In fact, just look up ‘gnarled.’
    I think the pecking order of seniority only matters to those to whom it matters, if you see what I mean. Though I must admit, it was a ready source of free drinks for some time…

  2. Cudzoziemiec Says:

    I’m fascinated by how fascinated you are by this. I’ll make an assumption that most cycle couriers start off as keen cyclists – some may start off doing it because they need money and they have a bike, but they’ll be the transient ones who leave as soon as they find “something better” (which it will be, for them). Lots of keen cyclists seem to need a challenge within cycling. For most it will be racing, audaxing, riding LeJoG or round the world, or just a bit longer and faster than last week; but for you it seems to be couriering. I wonder if that’s also true of the other long-term couriers (or even of you)? It’s also clear that you view couriering as a profession. You’ve said in a previous entry that you’re a courier who edits for money, not the other way round. That seems to an outsider like a pretty good definition of a “real” courier.

    For me, when I was a motorcycle courier back in the early ’90s, it was the opposite. I lasted three winters and would have done more had the compensation for being knocked off not come through, which enabled me to go off to some nice Polynesian islands for a year – but it was my very lack of professional attitude and challenge-seeking that enabled me to drift through what would have been a stop-gap job if I had had more career-minded get-up-and-go.

    “And so’s the old guy in the tracksuit on the Argos hybrid.”
    I take it you mean Argos the catalogue shop, not the fine frame fettlers of Bristol? 😉

  3. >L. Says:

    there are no hierarchies except for the ones you build in your head.
    did you feel any better after the first year, the second winter? did you feel more accepted [if so, by whom]? or does the confidence you gained over the years make you see the respect that was always there? and the longer you stay the clearer it becomes that everybody is doing just exactly the same job with only a personal interpretation of it.
    and transient, maybe. but there are also those who always return.

  4. thatmessengerchick Says:

    I was going to argue with you, but actually I think you’re mostly right – I’m very good at imagining hierarchies and then trying to scale them. And I’ve noticed I have a tendency to start something from scratch, be terrible at it at first, and make all the stupid rookie mistakes, and embarrass myself publicly – and then battle on through and get good at it, and then when I feel I’ve mastered it, move on to the next thing and start off making all the stupid mistakes again.

    And I’m beginning to think it’s time to leave couriering behind and start on a enw challenge…

  5. >L. Says:

    i didn’t mean there were no hierarchies in society [yes, also and especially in the small sub-cultural worlds], of course there are. but they need people who feed them and keep them alive. in every part of the ‘line’ [or whatever you want to name it].

  6. Cycle Courier: Initial Impressions — STRANGERTHINGSHAVEHAPPENED Says:

    […] to me (note that I haven’t really experienced this first hand, but it’s sure talked about and I’m sure I’ll be in full hypocrite mode once I’ve worked my way past the […]

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